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An illustration that depicts the cosmic awesomeness of an orgasm

Illustration by Marta Pucci

Sex

How many types of female orgasms are there?

Researching female orgasms.

by Maegan Boutot, Former Science Writer for Clue
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Orgasms are difficult to study.

Similar to studying mood or pain, female* orgasms needs to be interpreted through not just biological mechanisms but also psychological, sociological and historical trends.

Historically, in Western countries, female orgasms have been highly scrutinized. Orgasms were sometimes seen as unhealthy or wrong. And orgasms that are achieved through stimulation that is not heterosexual vaginal intercourse have been considered unacceptable by researchers and doctors (1,2).

The viewpoint that some orgasms were superior to others has been supported by healthcare professionals.

Sigmund Freud popularized the idea that mature women experience vaginal orgasm while immature women enjoyed clitoral stimulation (1-3).

The importance of vaginal orgasm became so rooted in 20th-century health that an inability to reach orgasm through heterosexual penetrative sex became part of a diagnosable condition in the DSM III (i.e. psychology and psychiatry’s diagnostic book) (4).

Although most healthcare professionals no longer consider inability for penetrative sex to induce orgasm to be a problem (unless their patients are distressed by it), many people feel that orgasm is a requirement for happy, meaningful and/or fulfilling sex (2). Some people also feel that orgasms should be reserved for sex, as opposed to experiencing orgasm during masturbation (1). Orgasm is great, but feeling pressure to have an orgasm, or a certain type of orgasm at a certain time, can make sex stressful and unpleasant.

The historical and social aspects of orgasm can obscure research

Researchers may bias respondents’ answers by asking questions that imply that an orgasm type exists.

Relatedly, there is a disagreement among some sex researchers about how to classify orgasms (3,5). For example, if stimulation of a non-genital body part causes the genitals to become aroused and the person experiences an orgasm, did the stimulation of the non-genitals cause the orgasm, or was it the arousal of the genitals that caused the orgasm?

Even if a researcher were to do a study using tools that measure arousal, this doesn’t avoid all problems.

People with female genitals have been shown to experience arousal in their genitals but not report arousal to researchers, suggesting that bodily arousal is insufficient indicator of sexual interest or pleasure (5).

Compounding researcher problems are problems of gathering participants for sex and orgasm studies. Enrolling participants in a study is always tricky, but when someone studies a topic that is potentially considered taboo or private, it can be difficult to ensure that your sample is representative of all people in all cultures (this is also called external validity). It also may be difficult for participants to accurately remember or know where and how they were stimulated to cause orgasm (5).

So given all these issues, why talk about orgasms at all?

Given the large amount of social and media commentary on orgasm, it’s important to understand how our bodies and the bodies of our partners actually work so that we can help reduce stigma and stress during sex. In the process, we may learn a thing or two on how to make sex more enjoyable.

The different types of female orgasms

Different types or different stimuli?

There are many pop-science articles (i.e. articles not published in a research journal) that claim there are anywhere from four to 15 different types of orgasms. As mentioned before, there’s a lot of debate as to how to classify female orgasms. However, there’s little evidence to support the idea that different stimuli reliably (i.e. repeatedly, under experimental conditions) cause different types of female orgasms or different intensity of orgasms. Most people report that “some orgasms are better than others” (6), but this doesn’t necessarily seem to be related to the stimuli that cause that orgasm.

Clitoral stimulation

The clitoris contains a bundle of nerve endings and is located in the front of the female vulva and under the clitoral hood (i.e. the triangle part of female genitals that connects to the labia) (3). The clitoris, similar to a penis, will swell, enlarge and become more sensitive as a person becomes more sexually aroused (3,5).

Stimulation of the clitoris is probably the easiest way for most people to experience an orgasm. In a 2017 study of over 1,000 women from the US, about 7 out of 10 people who had heterosexual sex said that they required clitoral stimulation to orgasm during that sex or that clitoral stimulation improved orgasms even if they didn’t require it to orgasm (6,7).

The type of clitoral stimulation preferred varied among the women in the study, though many women reported enjoying direct clitoral stimulation and stimulation that involved making circles or “up-and-down” movement (6).

That being said, there was a wide diversity in answers regarding how and in which ways a person liked having their clitoris stimulated, with even a few people saying they didn’t like direct contact at all (6).

Vaginal stimulation

A vaginally-stimulated orgasm is an orgasm that occurs through intentional stimulation of only the vagina. Although the clitoris or other body parts may be accidentally touched in the process, to have a “vaginal orgasm" there would be no intentional stimulation of other body parts.

In the same study described above, less than 1 in 5 women reported being able to orgasm through vaginal stimulation without clitoral stimulation (6).

The ability to orgasm from only vaginal sex may be related to the G-spot, though that is up for debate. The G-spot is not well understood (5,8,9). The G-spot may be its own structure, but it has also been argued that the G-spot is actually a retracted or enlarged clitoris or is a set of nerve endings attached to the clitoris (5,8,9). It’s also argued that the G-spot doesn’t exist at all (3,5). Regardless, there isn’t evidence to suggest that an orgasm from penetration-only is somehow superior to other forms of orgasm; in fact, intentional clitoral stimulation may make orgasm better than penetration-only orgasm (6).

Stimulation of other body parts

There is less research into orgasms caused by stimulation of body parts that aren't the genitals. Because many of these studies are small and aren’t all recent (10), the proportions of people reporting these types of orgasms may not be representative of the rate we would find in a large, representative survey. That being said, these studies do suggest that people don't necessarily need to directly stimulate their clitoris or vagina to experience an orgasm.

Some studies have found that people can experience orgasm through stimulation of the mouth, nipples, breasts, anus, and skin surrounding an injury (6,10).

Research with participants who have severe injuries to the spinal cord and with participants who have epileptic seizures suggest that there are orgasmic experiences that may be induced without direct incorporation of the genitals (10).

Orgasms outside of sex

Arousal of the genitals and even orgasm itself aren’t necessarily just experiences that happen during sex.

A hand holding a phone with the Clue app opened

Download Clue to track your sex drive and sexual activity.

Exercise-induced orgasm

Exercise, especially weight training, cardio, and abdominal-focused exercise, can induce orgasms (sometimes called coregasms in pop-science) and other positive genital stimulation (11). This makes sense biologically, as both exercise and sex can stimulate the muscles around the genitals and can lead to increased blood flow to the area of the body. Exercise may also influence our mood via endorphins and other neurotransmitters (12), similar to sex and orgasm (13).

Orgasms during sleep

Many people experience sexual arousal or orgasm during sleep (10). It’s difficult to say what or how exactly this happens. Because reporting from dreams can be unreliable, it’s difficult to say if all arousal and orgasms during sleep are caused by sexual dreams (10,11). Similarly, no research has currently looked at whether people were unconsciously stimulating their bodies during sleep or were being stimulated by bedding or other objects, so we’re not currently able to say if orgasms during sleep happen entirely unaided from stimulation (10).

Better orgasms

The goal of many orgasm-themed articles is to help people enjoy their orgasm or gain new experiences. Although there’s little evidence to suggest that orgasm from any particular type of stimulation is better than another, there are some suggestions in the literature on factors that increase or change our orgasmic experience. In the published literature, people reported that orgasms and sexual arousal were enhanced by:

- __“spending time to build-up arousal”__ (6)

- changing the intensity of touch, including stopping and restarting—this technique could help lead to a delayed and more pleasurable orgasm (6)

- being with a partner who they had a connection with or that knew their bodies (6)

- touching or stimulating nipples, breasts, or the anus (6,10,14),

- engaging in new positions, types of sex, or new behaviors (6,15)

A happy sex life

Although portrayals of orgasm in media, partners’ expectations for our orgasms, and our own interest in experiencing orgasm can make us feel like we need to have an orgasm every time we have sex (2), a happy sex life doesn’t necessarily mean having a mind-blowing orgasm during every sexual experience. Many people report that not all orgasms are the same (6), which makes sense—our minds and bodies change from day to day (due to mood, health, stress levels, etc.), and so it’s unrealistic to expect any type of stimulation to elicit the same experience every time. Orgasm is just one of many important elements to sexual satisfaction.  

*Note: This article uses the term female and male to refer to cis-gendered sexual anatomy. A person with entirely or partially female genitals may or may not be female as their gender, and a person with entirely or partially male genitals may or may not be male as their gender. There are also people with a mix of both male and female genitals, but unfortunately not a lot of research has been done with this population. I’m using the terms male and female to describe sexual organs because there is little agreement on other terms to use.

Article was originally published May 20, 2018.

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